No Go Joe

Vice President Joe Biden announced yesterday that he won’t be running for President. His declaration of non-candidacy ended months of speculation, as well as the hope in some quarters that he might enter the race for the Democratic nomination as an alternative to Hillary Clinton.  Although Biden and his family apparently had decided they could commit to a campaign, after months of mourning the recent death of his son, he concluded that they simply did not have enough time to launch a successful bid.

I’m not quite sure why so many were urging Biden to run in the first place.  After all, he’s sought the Democratic nomination on multiple occasions in the past, without making much of a mark.  I suspect that the “second-string quarterback syndrome” was at play.  Any football fan knows that when the first-string QB is struggling, the back-up’s popularity skyrockets — because he’s not out on the field getting sacked and throwing picks.  With Hillary Clinton’s ever-shifting  approach to questions about her private email server, and Bernie Sanders widely seen as unelectable, Biden seemed like a viable alternative.

It’s interesting that so many people who were urging Biden to run, and so many pundits who wrote favorably of that possibility, focused on Biden’s enjoyment of campaigning, as opposed to his capabilities, judgment, decision-making, and other qualities that would come into play if he actually were elected.  The pro-Joe stories always seemed to strike the tone that Joe came across as a good guy who loved to press the flesh and eat corn dogs with the little guys out on the hustings.  Gaffe-prone, to be sure, but an ever-smiling, two-fisted Happy Warrior who could be friends with those across the aisle and whose politics were agreeable to the liberal/progressive base of the Democratic Party.

Of course, those articles drew a favorable contrast between Old Joe and Hillary Clinton, who is widely depicted as wooden, contrived, and joyless in her campaign appearances and willing to endure them only because they are a necessary path to her ultimate goal.  And Biden’s speech yesterday struck some of those same tones.  Without mentioning Clinton by name, he criticized those who characterized Republicans as “enemies” — as Clinton did in the recent Democratic candidate debate — rather than as “opponents.”

So now “Middle-Class Joe” is out, and Hillary remains in.  Today she’ll testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi about her role in the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. installation in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in the death of the U.S. Ambassador and other Americans, and her public assertions in the aftermath of the attack.  With Biden out of the race, her performance today will get more attention than ever.

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A Spin Too Far

A recently released email indicates that a White House official was actively involved in shaping the Obama Administration’s depiction of the cause of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi — an attack that killed four Americans, including Chris Stevens, the Ambassador to Libya.  The release of the email was compelled by a court after having been withheld by the Obama Administration for more than a year before being released pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The email is from Ben Rhodes, an assistant to President Obama and the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.  It addresses the preparation of Susan Rice, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, for her appearance on Sunday morning talk shows to discuss the Benghazi attack and describes “goals” to be achieved.  One goal was to “underscore these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”  Another goal was to “reinforce the President and Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”  The email also says that “the currently available information is that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired” rather than being a planned attack.

The Washington Post website says the email “clearly showed a White House top priority was to shield Obama from criticism less than two months before voters decided whether to give him a second term.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says the email was not produced previously because it was not directly about the Benghazi attack but rather attempted to more broadly address Obama Administration policy and views about protests throughout the Middle East.

I try not to be naive about modern politics, where the immediate reaction to every bit of bad news is to try to develop a way to “spin” the news to better advantage.  Everyday Americans just need to understand that, for both parties, “spin” rules the day.  Even so, the newly released email is troubling.  Shouldn’t spin end at the water’s edge?  When we are talking about an attack that killed a U.S. Ambassador and three other Americans, isn’t the proper approach to wait until the facts are known, rather than actively shaping the comments of officials toward a story line that the White House thinks would better serve a President who is in the midst of a reelection campaign?

The Politics Of Whining

Yesterday the Sunday news shows were largely focused on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his staff’s decision to shut down lanes of the George Washington Bridge in order to exact some kind of political retribution on a New Jersey mayor.

Some conservatives reacted by counting how many minutes the shows devoted to the New Jersey story or by comparing how much air time and how many column inches have been devoted to “Bridgegate” as opposed to incidents like the Benghazi killings or the IRS targeting conservative organizations. They contend that the news media is biased and that Republican scandals always get more attention than Democratic scandals do.

This kind of reaction is just whining, and it’s neither attractive nor convincing. Both parties do it. When the news media was reporting every day on the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov, Democrats were doing the same thing and arguing that the media was ignoring the positive things accomplished by the Affordable Care Act. It’s a juvenile response to the news media doing its job.

The amount of coverage a story receives is largely a function of factors that have nothing to do with politics. The George Washington bridge incident has all the elements of a great story — a powerful politician, venal and misbehaving staff members, an initial cover-up, and average Americans being inconvenienced by some crass political power play. There is footage of traffic jams to be shown, angry and easy-to-find people to be interviewed, and a contrite governor’s press conference to cover. The same is true with the Obamacare website story: there are good visuals, lots of individual stories to tell, and obvious story lines to follow, like how did this happen and how much did it cost and who screwed up. Ask yourself which story is easier to cover — the New Jersey bridge closure or the shootings in faraway and dangerous Libya — and you’ll get a good sense of which story will in fact get more coverage.

Modern politicians always seem to have an excuse and always look for someone else to blame. Whining about news coverage apparently is part of the playbook, but I can’t believe it works. Whining is pathetic, not persuasive.

The Embassy Closures

The United States closed 21 of its embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa on Sunday, and most of those facilities will remain closed this week.

As usual, our government seems incapable of speaking with one voice on exactly why it has taken such a step.  The State Department says the closures are “out of an abundance of caution” and not in response to a new threat, whereas talking heads on the Sunday shows said the closures were in response to the most serious threat identified by intelligence-gathering efforts in several years.  There also has been an apparent intelligence leak disclosing that the United States reportedly intercepted an exchange of messages between al Qaeda leaders about a plot against an embassy.

Although I wish our government could get its act together on messaging, I don’t see a viable alternative to closing the embassies.  If we have received credible intelligence information that our embassies and consulates in the Muslim world are targets of an impending attack, there are few options.  Physical security arrangements can’t be enhanced overnight; far better to get our people out of harm’s way until better information about the threat is developed.  Although some people may criticize that course as showing weakness, it seems like the only prudent option.  We don’t need another Benghazi-like situation.

The deeper issue here is what this apparent threat means about al Qaeda itself.  With the killing of Osama bin Laden and the publicized deaths of countless “high-ranking al Qaeda leaders” over the years, we’ve been led to believe that al Qaeda has been severely diminished.  If al Qaeda is capable of attacking an American embassy, that fact suggests a resurgent organization — or one about whom the reports of decline have been greatly exaggerated.  If the former is true, how much of the resurgence is due to the bad feelings generated by the continuing American presence in the Middle East and our aggressive use of drones?

The recognition of substantial al Qaeda capabilities that is implicit in the decision to close the embassies is sobering, to say the least.

Trying To Get To The Bottom Of Benghazi

Congressional hearings are underway into the storming of the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.  The hearings are interesting — both for what they are telling us about what happened in Libya and within the U.S. government itself as the attacks unfolded, but also for what they are telling us about the twisted, hyper-partisan world of Washington, D.C.

During yesterday’s testimony, which the New York Times described as “riveting,” a veteran U.S. diplomat named Gregory Hicks gave a detailed account of the night of the attack.  Hicks, a 22-year Foreign Service veteran, became the head State Department official in Libya after Ambassador Stevens was killed.  He testified about how a Special Operations team wanted to fly to Benghazi to help but was overruled by officials in Washington, who concluded it could not arrive in time to help.  Hicks also described being “stunned” and “embarrassed” when Administration officials, including UN Ambassador Susan Rice, initially portrayed the attack as a response to a YouTube video and how such comments angered the president of the Libyan National Assembly, who had called the attack a preplanned terrorist act.  Hicks testified that the Libyan government’s feeling of being undercut may have delayed their cooperation with Americans investigating the incident.  Furthermore, he said that when he raised questions about Rice’s comments, he was effectively demoted and led to understand that he should stop asking questions.

The testimony of Hicks and two other officials, Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom, indicate that there is still information to be uncovered and lessons to be learned about Benghazi.  When four Americans, including an ambassador, are killed, their deaths deserve a detailed inquiry and a careful evaluation, at the congressional level.  Such an evaluation should determine whether changes in law, security arrangements, staffing, or emergency response procedures are needed to prevent such an incident from ever happening again.

Unfortunately, in our modern government, things are never quite that simple.  The Times story linked above reflects that unfortunate fact, because much of the article is devoted to the “politics” of what should ideally be an apolitical, objective fact-finding exercise.  It’s ludicrous, and disheartening, and it is happening on both sides of the aisle.  Republicans should stop portraying every incident as “another Watergate”; it just allows their opponents to dismiss hearings such as yesterday’s as a politically motivated witch hunt.  And Democrats should stop trying to downplay the significance of Benghazi and resist every inquiry about why four Americans died.  That much, at least, is owed to the memories of those four Americans — and to the many other Americans who serve their country in diplomatic posts in dangerous parts of the world.

Secretary Clinton Stands Down

Hillary Clinton has stepped down from President Obama’s Cabinet.  After battling health problems, she has been replaced as Secretary of State by John Kerry.

With so much of international diplomacy conducted behind closed doors, it’s very difficult to gauge the performance of any Secretary of State until the years pass and secrets become public.  In Clinton’s case, we know that the United States has managed to avoid become embroiled in any new wars during her tenure and that our roles in Iraq and Afghanistan are finally winding down.  We also know that efforts to “reset” relations with the Russians haven’t made much progress, North Korea, Iran, and Syria remain rogue states, and Pakistan seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos.  And the Holy Grail of American diplomacy — brokering a conclusive Middle East peace deal — eluded Secretary Clinton just as it eluded every one of her predecessors.  Her legacy as Secretary of State may be dependent, in significant part, upon what historians conclude about how, if at all, her stewardship affected the takeover of the American compound in Benghazi and the killing of the Ambassador and three other Americans.

What we can also say about Secretary Clinton, however, is that she was a good soldier for the President.  She didn’t make any trouble, didn’t try to upstage him, and by all accounts worked hard at her job and developed good relations with the career diplomats at the State Department.  She didn’t seem to let her ego get in the way — and in these days of celebrity politicians, that’s saying a lot.  When John Kerry’s tenure at the State Department has ended, I wonder whether we will be able to say the same thing about him?

Mr. President, Please Don’t Shoot Yourself In The Foot!

Can President Obama actually be considering nominating Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State?  Some are reporting that Rice is his choice, and at a press conference yesterday he forcefully defended her against criticism by John McCain and other Senators. The President said Rice has done “exemplary” work at the UN and that if he decides she would be the best choice, he will go ahead and nominate her.

It seems inconceivable that Rice would be on the President’s short list for the most visible position in the Cabinet.  For many Americans, she is the face and voice of what they consider to be an unconscionable attempt to mislead and cover up the truth about the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  When Rice went on the Sunday talk shows and attempted to blame the Benghazi attacks on a YouTube video, she was presenting a false narrative that, increasingly, has been shown to be at odds with the facts known to many in the Administration — that the Benghazi incident was a planned and carefully executed terrorist attack, not a a spontaneous mob reaction to an incendiary video.  As a result, many angry Americans view Rice as either a know-nothing shill who was out of the loop but faithfully presented the phony talking points given to her or a knowing participant in an effort to deceive the American people.  Either way, she has little credibility with them.

If the President nominates Rice, he will be guaranteeing a bruising confirmation fight and extended hearings into what Rice and others knew about the attack.  Why run that risk?  Rice may be capable — although I’m not sure what has been “exemplary” about her service at the UN — but there undoubtedly are hundreds of people who also could capably serve as Secretary of State.  Can’t the President pick someone who won’t serve as a lightning rod for criticism about an ugly, poorly handled foreign policy disaster that involved the death of four Americans?

I cringed when I read the President’s statement that “[i]f Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me.”  We don’t need silly macho posturing right now.  When the President won re-election, people wondered whether he would be more of a compromiser in his second term, or whether — freed from the need to ever again stand for election — he would demand that things be done his way, no matter what the opposition.  If the President insists on nominating Rice, he will be indicating that he is following the latter course, which in turn will just harden the opposition and make compromises less likely.  If the President shoots himself in the foot by sending Rice’s name to the Senate, we may be in for more long years of bickering, gridlock, and inability to tackle our debt, deficit, and entitlement problems.  We can’t afford that possibility — and the President can’t either.